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Making choices: Live Theatre Workshop's 'The Cripple of Inishmaan'

An earnestly entertaining and professionally judicious production of Martin McDonagh's "The Cripple of Inishmaan" has opened a six-week run at Live Theatre Workshop.

A vexing and yet widely performed play by an important contemporary Anglo-Irish playwright about the impact on the inhabitants of a remote island off Ireland's West Coast of the 1934 filming of Robert Flaherty's celebrated documentary "Man of Aran," "Inishmaan" is an interesting and ambitious choice for LTW. Tucson's busiest not-for-profit small theatre has, under the sensitive and prudent guidance of artistic director Sabian Trout and executive director Michael Martinez, continued to (gradually and occasionally) renovate its programming with more sophistication.

Directed by Amy Almquist, one of Tucson's most accomplished and respected actors and directors, this production encounters — sincerely, professionally, and entertainingly, if not always comfortably — the ideological, aesthetic, and dramaturgical issues McDonagh's play controversially encounters.

How to speak the speech

Let's begin with McDonagh's language, a beguiling but disturbing pastiche that combines a mostly invented, Gaelic-inflected dialect (reminiscent of Synge, O'Casey, and other earlier 20th-century, lyrically realistic, Irish Revival playwrights) with a scatalogical, punkishly violent, post-modern theatre and film patois much influenced (as McDonagh has often acknowledged) by, principally among others, Pinter, Mamet, Tarantino, and Scorsese. The crucial issues here are: (1) how to speak this speech, how "Oirish" to make it, and (2) how to mediate this speaking, how to find ways to acknowledge its anachronistic artificiality.

Almquist deals with the first issue simply enough, especially for an American audience not very familiar with the historical and cultural nuances of Irish speech and with the political controversies generated by (in the words of McDonagh scholar Patrick Lonergan) "the persistence of [stereotypical] globalized images of Irishness" and "stage-Irish characters."

She provides a glossary of "Irish Terminology" in the program and induces the actors to only lightly Irish their lines, to trace the traditional rhythms of the brogue but not linger over the vowel shifts and consonant stops. The result is a somewhat consistent if occasionally elusive "local" dialect, best managed and sustained by the more experienced cast members, especially Carlisle Ellis as Eileen, Rhonda Hallquist as Kate, Roxanne Harley as Mammy, and Brian Wees as Dr. McSharry.

Without ostensible comment

The second issue — acknowledging the invented nature of the play's language and the reasons for its deployment — is much more difficult to manage, and, not unexpectedly, Almquist essentially ignores it.

Indeed, she and the production's highly competent set and costume designers (Glen Bucy and Kathy Hurst) are reluctant to engage with any but the most overt of the play's ideological consequences. Thus the well-chosen and -constructed costumes are stage-clean and prettified imitations of 1930s Irish peasant clothes; the nicely done set simulates without ostensible comment the wood beams, stone floor (nice attention to detail here: you might expect dirt, but, as Flaherty's film makes clear, there is virtually no soil on these barren, rocky islands), and cracked plaster of the script's "small country shop" (but why is brick and not stone showing through the cracks?).

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In fact, the only design reference to the play's post-modern send-up of traditional Irish dramas (especially those set among the remote West Coast peasantry) is the punkish red wash in Brie Zepada (as Helen)'s dark brown hair, but — unlike, for example, in the Royal National Theatre of London's 1997 world-premiere production, in which Aisling O'Sullivan's Helen wears the readily recognizable (to an only recently-post-Troubles British and Irish audience ) uniform-like clothing of a revolutionary terrorist/freedom-fighter — Zepada has on a rather becoming, somewhat tailored, woolen dress.

Perpetrating violence

And this bring us to the next major controversy dogging McDonagh's theatre and film work — the habitual and savage violence, and its relation to the play's exploration of identity politics in the developing (and, indeed, developed) world.

Of course, the precarious brutality of the islanders' rock-hard impoverished lives (emblematic here of the "systemic violence" of globalizing "liberal capitalism" — McDonagh scholar Eamonn Jordan) informs every moment of "Inishmaan," but it can get lost in the lyrically comic brilliance of the language — an aesthetic trap McDonagh habitually springs by sudden eruptions of painful, bloody, eviscerating force.

Throughout most of the play, the main onstage perpetrator of this violence is, surprisingly, Helen, "a pretty girl of 17," the prettiest girl on the island, "pretty enough to get clergymen groping me arse," who is also, in an interesting Shavian-like, anachronistic twist, a thoroughly post-modern, post-gender, late-20th-century "strong" woman.

Everyone is afraid of her: she kills farm animals for money, bullies and threatens adult men and women, physically assaults Cripple Billy (Gino Cocchi) and her own wimpish brother, Bartley (Adam Denoyer), in almost every scene she has with them.

As has been well established by now in the play's reception history, the way this violence is perpetrated and Helen portrayed is an index to the director's handling of this dark comedy's darkness and to this actor's willingness to be disliked by the audience — risky theatrical business on both counts. Once again, not unexpectedly, Almquist softens the blow(s).

Zepada's punches, slaps, and pinches seem playful rather than menacing, she more taps than breaks the eggs open on poor Billy's head in the parabolic "England vs. Ireland game," and she characteristically concludes these abusive episodes by walking downstage to the edge of the central part of the three-quarter-thrust stage and sharing with the audience (not manifestly: there is no reflexive fourth-wall-breaking) a teasing, flirtatious smile that mollifies the play's disturbingly farcical exploration of the imperialist master/slave dialectic.

This is hardly Kerry Condon's "fierce as a polecat" ("Guardian" reviewer Lyn Gardner) 2008 Dublin/NYC--Druid/Atlantic-Theatre Helen , "the great complex, comic creation" reviewers and critics have hailed as a consummate "breaching of type" whose radical "performativity opens up so many possibilities" (Eamonn Jordan again) for reconceiving and reenacting gender, ethnic, and other post-colonial identities.

Choices and consequences

Now, don't misunderstand me: these are perfectly reasonable choices for this company to be making for its audience — indeed, this is how busy, small, not-for-profit theatres manage to remain commercially viable while increasing the sophistication of their programming, and I applaud and appreciate LTW's ambition to do both.

But, as far as I know, this is the only time this now canonical play has been performed in Tucson — and one of my jobs here is to indicate various contexts in which such enduring cultural artifacts have been and can be received, and to stimulate a public discussion of the ways in which local theatrical productions engage these opportunities.

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As directors and actors will tell you, theatrical performance is often and mostly about making choices — and, as we all know, the choices we make have consequences. Hence this production's muffling of this famous play's dark-comic complexity and challenging liberatory performativity is, ironically, the price that must be paid so that we can pay to see the show. Let me give you one more example of this consequential muffling and then — pardon this next metaphor, but as you'll see, it's unnervingly appropriate — I'll stop beating this dead horse.

One of the other things you won't see, or, in this instance, hear, in this production of this show is the terrifyingly extended, in-the-dark beating of the play's sympathetically vulnerable titular character, Cripple Billy. The stage direction reads, "BILLY covers up as the pipe scythes down. Blackout, with the sounds of BILLY'S pained screams and the pipe scything down again and again." This is one of the play's seminal moments, an excruciating primal scene of physical horror and retribution that, having left the safety and comfort of our homes on this cold and rainy (last Saturday's opening) night and travelled in imagined space to the very edge of the civilized world, the audience is not going to be allowed to ignore — except, of course, in this production of this show, we are.

What we get instead is a clean, well-lighted moment of obviously simulated stage combat — two choreographed swings with the pipe, an agonized grunt, a whimper, then blackout. No scything, no screaming — "again and again" — in the darkness of the theatre and our imaginations.

Casting

Another crucial set of choices and consequences in this and any theatre production is casting. Now, this is not Dublin, London, or New York, but Almquist is a resourceful, well-connected director and she has assembled a fine ensemble here: Ellis and Hallquist, Harley and Wees, playing two different familial pairings, are talented, well-trained, experienced actors who are comfortable with the dialect, the sometimes rapidly shifting beats, and the urgently building pace of many of the scenes. Karl Haas doesn't quite fit the script's description of BabbyBobby, but he conveys working-class values and menace convincingly enough.

Patrick Burke is a fine actor with real stage presence and enough facility with the language to carry us through all the convoluted speeches he has to make as JohnnyPateenMike, the village gossipmonger. But he's miscast: Burke looks to be in his early 40s or younger, yet the script makes it clear, specifically in the cast list and more or less directly in several places in the dialogue, that the character is in his "mid-60s," an important plot point linked to his father's being eaten by a shark in the 1870s.

Moreover, Burke's evident muscular athleticism (he's a firefighter in real life) emphasizes the actor's physical rather than the character's verbal power: JohnnyPattenMike's access to and manipulation of language and information give him the authority to terrorize the other islanders. His aging, debilitated appearance is supposed to reinforce this sense of the non-physical, "symbolic" nature of his use of force, of the "normal" hegemonic violence of language, a thematic practice upon which, as I've already suggested, the play hinges. (I can't help thinking that more age- and appearance-appropriate use of this versatile cast would have had Wees playing JohnnyPateenMike, Burke playing BabbyBobby, and Haas playing the doctor).

The other cluster of actors, Zepada, Cocchi, and Denoyer, are portraying damaged and/or damaging late teens, whose desire to break free of the savagely stultifying, traditional island life — to escape into "Hollywood" and "screen tests" and "a life free of work, or anyways only acting work which couldn't be called work at all, it's only talking" — motivates the plot. They are all earnest and competent and watchable.

Zepada is certainly pretty enough, as Helen is constantly demanding that the other characters acknowledge, and she has a compelling and memorable stage presence, although, as I've already indicated, she could be tougher and less coquettish, but those are no doubt as much Almquist's choices as hers. Denoyer loses touch with the rhythm of the dialect and the scene occasionally, but he's game for this tricky part, and suitably sweet-toothed and slow-witted when he needs to be.

Cocchi, in the title role, finds the character's poignantly resilient dignity beneath the leg brace and the claw hand (which never unfolds or even wavers — a little acting tour de force), but he's a bit too subdued, even "interior" at times (not much call for that in a McDonagh play), especially in his scenes with Denoyer, which were somewhat sluggish opening night — "too much air," as directors say over and over again in tech week — but which, as the production gets deeper into its run, will likely tighten up.

Stage business

Almquist is quite adept with blocking and stage business. The barrel stage-right of the counter gives Billy a very useful perch, and the other characters move around the set smoothly and naturally — Eileen sweeps, Kate talks to her stones and hides her sweets, the hyperactive Helen prowls the stone floor and jumps on the counter, Johnny maneuvers to take center stage, open his leather-bound notebook, and present the news.

The center-piece of the second act, the screening of "Man of Aran," is handled efficiently and cleverly: heralded by a poster pinned to the front of the counter, on either side of which various characters emblematically converse, then indirectly rendered by the flickery dimming and brightening of one of the overhead stage lights. But this simple and inexpensive solution (necessitated no doubt by the configuration of the stage as well as the production's budget) means there will no bedsheet/screen for Helen to throw eggs at or for (the unexpectedly resurrected) Billy to be silhouetted behind and against — another crucial and provocative plot point, a somewhat celebrated coup de theatre evoking the problematics of theatrical representation, that Almquist's and LTW's prudent professionalism elides.

(Dis)Closure

This seems a proper (and penultimate) moment for disclosure. I've acted with LTW many times, main-stage and late-night, inner-company and occasional one-off. They produced and presented the world-premiere run of a one-man play I wrote and perform. I've long admired their commitment to the local community — especially in their various performance platforms (which also include a vigorous children's theatre) and in their diverse, extensive, and award-winning educational programs.

To conclude: I urge you to see this earnestly entertaining production of an important contemporary play — your one chance probably to go to a live performance in Southern Arizona of "The Cripple of Inishmaan," and yet another opportunity for you to support an accomplished, hard-working, enterprising, civic-minded theatre company which, now in its 20th year, has become a cherished Tucson cultural institution.

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Live Theatre Workshop

Gino Cocchi (Billy), Rhonda Hallquist (Kate), and Carlisle Ellis (Eileen).

What, where & when

  • The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh
  • Live Theatre Workshop
  • 5317 E. Speedway
  • Thurs-Sun., Feb. 16 - March 25,
  • Tickets $15-20
  • www.livetheatreworkshop.org